Live from the Heritage Barbecue smokers, owner Daniel Castillo and Alta Journal contributing editor Gustavo Arellano offered Alta Live a behind-the-scenes look at some of the best barbecue in California. This week’s episode allowed viewers to skip the San Juan Capistrano spot’s hours-long lines and dive (virtually) into a tray of award-winning ’cue. Castillo and Arellano downed a platter of Austin-style barbecue (and a few shots of Blinking Owl Bourbon) as they discussed the grand success and superb barbecue methods of Heritage Barbecue. Castillo, it should be noted, was clothed in a “Support Your Local Pitmaster” shirt and a hat emblazoned with the word “Brisket.”
Pitmaster Castillo grew up eating barbecue with his grandparents. His father, who worked in masonry, would cook steaks using leftover two-by-fours for fuel. As an adult, Castillo hosted driveway barbecues until the City of Garden Grove shut down his wildly popular events. Castillo and his wife, Brenda, then transitioned to hosting pop-ups at breweries before opening their brick-and-mortar location and buying four 1,000-gallon smokers. “We pulled off something that people have been trying to do around here for a very long time,” Castillo said.
Located deep in south Orange County, Heritage Barbecue gets less attention in San Juan Capistrano than it would in a place like Los Angeles. “A real barbecue restaurant should be about community, so it should be a place where people feel comfortable regardless of where they’re coming from,” Castillo said, noting that Heritage hopes to serve an population more diverse than just San Juan Capistrano’s. At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, Heritage served free meals to essential workers, and last fall, the restaurant gave away 75 turkeys for Thanksgiving. “We would never turn anybody away that was hungry. We want to feed our community and make it affordable,” Castillo said.
Arellano asked Castillo where this mindset comes from. “Just being human, man,” he replied.
When it comes to a typical day at this Instagram-worthy lunch spot, the Heritage team starts early. Castillo arrives at 4:30 a.m. to fire up the pits, pull briskets that were cooking overnight, and put fresh meat in the smokers. He checks on the proteins all day. “Briskets have a mind of their own, so when they’re coming off the pit, they’re all coming off at different times,” Castillo said, just as executive chef Nick Echaore made a quick appearance to serve a tray of mouthwatering ’cue and sides.
Arellano and Castillo feasted on pork ribs, brisket tacos and fresh salsa, cheeseburger sausage links, potato bread, elote, burnt-onion jam, and “all the fresh stuff.” Castillo eschews barbecue sauce and rubs his famous brisket with just “salt, pepper, and a whole lot of prayer,” a phrase he picked up from Phillip Helberg of Helberg Barbecue in Waco, Texas. “We focus on the protein,” he said, noting that Heritage seeks out the highest-quality beef, pork, and chicken. “And then we let the meat speak for itself.”
Prodded by questions from the Alta Live audience, Castillo contemplated the definition of true California-style barbecue. “The flavors that we play around with are a little different,” he said. It’s more like Cal-Mex than Tex-Mex, Arellano suggested, combining flavors and influences from many different cuisines. Castillo agreed. “We bring all these different cultures that are here, and we put them on one plate,” he said.
Heritage Barbecue is open Wednesday through Sunday, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. or until sold out, at its San Juan Capistrano location. Fun fact: it’s looking to expand and begin shipping nationwide by the end of the year.•
Alta Live is a weekly event series hosted by Alta Journal’s digital editor, Beth Spotswood. Each week, Alta invites innovators, academics, change makers, and artists to share their work with our readers in this free virtual series. Join us next Wednesday for Alta Live: Shark Lab.